Saturday, December 1, 2012

Lesser Prairie-Chicken and the Falling Sky

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its legally-required intentions to determine if the Lesser Prairie-Chicken should be added to the list of Federally threatened or endangered species.  Predictably this has caused the nutcases to come unglued claiming all manner of horrible things will befall the world if the bird is listed. The ranting and raving stems from the standard uninformed line about how the Endangered Species Act will "stop" development.

You would think that after more than 40 years of the Endangered SpeciesAct these neanderthals would know that the Act doesn't "stop" anything.  It is designed to force agencies to find ways to proceed without adversely affecting the species or its habitat.  In fact when there is a Jeopardy determination in a biological opinion under the Act the Act has failed.  

The Act says that Federal actions must ensure that the continued existence of the species is not threatened by those actions and conservation measures and mitigation measures are put in place to make sure that doesn't happen. Still these individuals run around with their chicken little mind set certain that the sky will fall if a species is added to the list. 

What will come of this process is a final determination as to whether or not the species will be listed.  It will look something like this determination I authored twenty years ago when there was a proposal to list the Ferruginous Hawk as a threatened species.  There was not enough evidence available to warrant listing the hawk. There appears to be more than enough available to warrant listing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

The president of the Florida Keys Association of Realtors once came unglued because the Lower Keys Rice Rat was an endangered species. She told me with great authority that "if one landowner isn't allowed to build on his land because of a god damned rat there is going to be a holy war in the Lower Keys."  I asked her matter-of-factly "Shirley, what does it say to you about the quality of  the human environment when a rat has to be listed as an endangered species?"  She looked blankly out her office window and then changed the subject.  That conversation happened in 1992.  I was last in the Lower Keys in August 2012. There has been no let up in the amount of development.  Humans, development, and the Lower Keys Rice Rat are still there.

Once I accompanied one of my biologists on a visit to a Corps of Engineers colonel in Los Angeles who immediately began hyperventilating about how the Act "stops development." After a few minutes of this nonsense I asked him to look out his window (we were in downtown LA across the street from where the OJ Simpson trial was held) and show me where development had been stopped by the ESA. Realizing his bluff had been called he began working with us instead of against us.

A farmer from near Lexington, Nebraska made a pilgrimage to Washington one March day to plead for relief from the Endangered Species Act.  He sat in our office in Arlington Square waxing poetic about how people "all over the Platte River" were losing their jobs because of the Whooping Crane and because there was federally listed critical habitat for the bird on the river.  I knew this farmer because once John Sidle and I flew a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald over his illegal dike in the Platte River and Fred's resulting story got the Corps of Engineers to direct him to remove the dike.  The farmer didn't remember me until I asked him to "name ONE person along the river who has lost their job because of the Act."   He thought a second and finally said, "well, there are none."  Damned right there weren't.

I once thought that if you passed on information to the public they would get the message and our job would be completed.  However its a never ending battle and it shows no signs of letting up.

Another time I was asked to give a presentation on the effects of irrigation agriculture on endangered species to a group of irrigation farmers in Palco, Kansas   At the conclusion of the talk a grizzled old man raised his hand and asked me "what's a skink?"

I explained that a skink is a type of lizard.  He asked me "Well, then, do you think a lizard should be allowed to stop a water project?"  I asked more questions and learned that a state-listed species of skink was holding up a water project in western Kansas and this man thought that was almost blasphemous.  

Without answering him I asked "Sir, do you know what an armadillo is? A little animal that spends most of its life dead along side the road?"  

Saying that he did I said "The armadillo is the only species of animal that can not contract leprosy. It produces carries the virus in its body but produces a chemical that keeps the virus from growing and causing leprosy.  There is enough of that chemical in one armadillo to treat seven human victims of leprosy. Now do you know what is in that skink?"

He didn't.

I asked "Do you want to take the chance?"

He said he didn't.

I replied, "That's why we have the Endangered Species Act - to keep all the parts no matter how seemingly inconsequential together."

After the last question was answered he walked up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me "for opening my eyes."   Hopefully the next day he was in a local restaurant telling his other uninformed buddies about armadillos and leprosy and skinks and how they all matter.

It looks like some old colleagues in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas will have to use the same logic if the Lesser Prairie-Chicken gets listed.


  1. Excellent article. I was wondering if you were going to right about this when I read an article about it in the Wichita Eagle.

  2. Thanks for this - Listing the chicken was on the table 15 years ago and states were scared to death that listing would mean trouble and it would be better for states to work together. FWS relegated it to candidate status level 8 or so; meaning it was never going to get listed due to a shortage of resources for listing; shortage over a period of 15 years? I could have drafted a proposed rule in one week. One of my last official acts in late 2010 was attending a meeting in north Texas about the prairie chicken and everyone agreed that the status of the bird was far worse than 15 years ago. Nothing had gotten done. Listing would have forced a parade of programs and activities on behalf of the bird. Unless forced people are not compelled.

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